Leaving Vietnam in route to Bangkok, a single lesson was tattooed on my mind:
Travel isn’t about me.
My husband and I booked a trip to SE Asia this year to Vietnam and Thailand, of which part would be “travel” and the other “vacation”. This first part would be spent in Vietnam running around like chickens with our heads cut off, sleeping in a wide range of places, and the remainder of the trip would be spent in Thailand on a beach, with a cocktail in hand, doing absolutely nothing. I can’t even begin to write guides or share photos until I share my thoughts about Vietnam, so bare with me.
We packed our carry-on bag for three weeks, 27 hours later landed in Hanoi, Vietnam at 7 pm on a Friday, and had no idea what we signed up for. We knew only 5% of visitors to Vietnam return again, and at points I thought I’d be part of the 95% who didn’t return.
Vietnam is emotional. It breaks your heart, it opens your mind, and it feeds your soul — like a bittersweet breakup.
Vietnam is eye opening. You see things you can’t un-see, it changes your perception — like a good documentary.
Vietnam is humbling. You’re reminded to be thankful for what you have — like a late wakeup call.
+ We stayed in the Old Quarter, and at first I feared for my life, I never thought I’d cross the street. Hundreds of motorcycles, cars, cycles, you name it whiz by at ungodly speeds, and there’s no stoplights and no crosswalks, you get to just jump out to cross. It’s the same pitting stomach feeling of jumping off the high diving board for the first time. Then I crossed. Having the largest smile on my face, I felt like I passed the test, I could be in Hanoi and actually get from one place to another.
Every time I crossed the sea of vehicles, I realized travel isn’t about me, it’s about learning how the locals of Hanoi live day to day, and being apart of it — not about my fears.
+ Scrambling the streets of Hanoi, we did our best to avoid ridiculously colored fluids on the street and very raw smells at first. The way of life in Vietnam is much different than here in the US — if you’ve ever gawked at the food hanging in the windows of China Town, well Vietnam is 100x that. I’ll never forget waking up early the first morning and heading out to take photos. Walking the streets, watching the stalls set up for the day, the amount of raw meats being chopped up. From random pig parts, to seafood, to cow, it all happens right there in front of you like watching a Nat Geo video, but this time you’re living it. We sat down for our first meal, beef pho at 8 am in the morning (typical breakfast) and it was beautiful. You could see the woman going down the street to get the protein from the local butcher and using it in the homey dishes she prepared. Each bite felt like I was partaking in what the local Vietnamese did every day.
Every time I ate a local dish (though I couldn’t tell you what was in it), I realized travel isn’t about me, it’s about tasting how the locals of Hanoi taste, and getting to experience it — not about my uneasiness.
+ To say people live a little close for comfort, would be an understatement. Houses are stacked, people crammed, and it’s a normal way of life. Often this means trash, food scraps, and a lot of “who-knows-what” left all over the street. We later found out that the dirty streets often sprayed with trash is a cultural thing, as there is little to no garbage pickup. There are streets that seem to be cleaner than others, but the streets that are dirty are dirty. My shoes felt like they lived a thousand lives just by everything they touched in the first few hours. The OCD in me freaked out at first, and I thought I was going to have to take a shower every two hours. There was a point around day 2, where I just didn’t see the trash anymore — somewhere between the beauty of bright produce being carried in baskets and families sitting down for dinner together. I looked past it and began to see the overwhelming beauty of everyday life that we were engulfed by.
Every time I stepped on something squishy or weirdly colored, I realized travel isn’t about me, it’s about being exactly where you are and soaking it all in — not about my discomforts.
Here’s a few more examples:
We slept two nights in an overnight train, two nights in a hotel where you definitely had to wear flip flops in the shower (though the room was clean), and a night on a boat. Would I do it again? Absolutely. We ate more noodles than my stomach could hold (of course checked to make sure the water was boiling), ate all kinds of weird animal parts — and loved it. It was exciting, and incredible. The Vietnamese were welcoming and happy to show us how to eat when we didn’t know how to. A local vendor who I overpaid by 250,000 dong even was honest and gave me back the amount; completely breaking down the stereotypes of getting ripped off. The Vietnamese have a dry sense of humor, and love to make a playful connection, if you’re game, you were in the in. I loved this about the Vietnamese.
Vietnam is the first place where travel challenged me to just be okay and put myself second. I think if you put yourself first, you can easily become one of the 95%.
Often I travel and think about where I will be comfortable, feel safe, or not outside my normal limits — you really don’t have this luxury in Vietnam. I realized each time I complained about the smells, the heat, the weird food, the traffic, and bizarre fluids, that I was making it about me.
Travel is not about me.
It’s about getting to experience a culture, learn their history, and share their story. After I put myself second, I realized how beautiful Vietnam is. Not just the picturesque rice paddies of Sapa or the striking karsts of Ha Long Bay — but the people, the food, and the culture. I felt a sense of freedom to not be tied to my norms and comforts, and it forever changed the way I look at travel.
Now home, reflecting back on our experience, I can say I’ll be part of the 5% who returns again.
Thank you Vietnam for freeing my discomforts, fears, and uneasiness — showing how beautiful life is in every corner of the world.